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A Global Lens on Teacher Quality

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High-achieving countries share some common practices when it comes to the recruitment, training and development of public-school teachers, according to experts at a recent Education Writers Association event.

A few years ago in Singapore, teachers in a high school English department posed a question: Would having students conduct live debates on an issue before they wrote persuasive essays about it result in more highly developed final papers?

Like social scientists, the Singaporean educators sought to test their theory, collaboratively designing the exercise and scoring the essays using identical rubrics. Their conclusion: The debate exercise appeared to prompt more nuanced thinking from the students in their subsequent essays – findings the teachers ultimately published in a professional journal.

Collaboration is key

Researcher Linda Darling-Hammond relayed the story during a December 2015 EWA panel on global teacher quality, explaining that this kind of collaboration and autonomy underscores the work lives of teachers in some academically high-achieving countries.

Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor emeritus and leader of the newly formed Learning Policy Institute, was joined by two other internationally focused academics to discuss those trends at the EWA panel in Washington, including Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish scholar and visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Lin Goodwin, a professor and vice dean at Teachers College, Columbia University. The three researchers are coauthors of a forthcoming book that examines teacher-quality practices in high-achieving systems.

Together, they shared the common practices and conditions that have created high-quality teacher workforces in countries like Finland, Singapore, South Korea and the Netherlands, which are seen as strong performers on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an exam for 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. Those characteristics include:

  • Autonomy and collaboration. Teachers usually are given a great deal of freedom to collaborate and plan together, and are largely insulated from swings in state or national policy.
  • Consistent preparation systems. The pipeline for teacher training is well-planned and consistent among the high-performing country’s institutions.
  • Selective admission into teacher-prep programs. Universities are careful to only admit applicants to teacher training programs that show signs of being well-suited for teaching, based on their academic performance, outside interests, and their in-person interviews.
  • Social conditions. High-performing countries tend to be places where communities value education, favor providing schools with adequate resources, and consider teaching to be prestigious.

“The big takeaway? These are careers with respect,” said Darling-Hammond.

She added that while American teachers teach about 27 hours per week, educators in high-performing countries teach about 19 hours a week, which leaves more time for collaboration and planning with colleagues, or for student tutoring.

“What (Americans) focus on is: ‘Did we get a good teacher? Do they do well when we rank them?’” said Darling-Hammond. “In other countries, the emphasis is on the whole group of teachers being lifted up together.”

What the research shows

While many American teachers may spend more time working alone than with other teacher colleagues in their schools, Sahlberg said that research indicates teachers tend to be more effective with they work in teams, or at least have the time and ability to collaborate.

Goodwin, who grew up in Singapore and has closely examined that country’s education system as an American scholar, said teachers there are seen and treated as professionals, policymakers, and thinkers and collaborators, which breeds a sense of respect for teachers among members of the public.

“(Teachers) are not treated as somebody the government works on,” she added, referring to top-down reforms to the teaching profession in the U.S., such as those enacted by state legislatures.

In high-performing countries, the pipeline for the teacher workforce tends to be carefully managed, starting with who is selected to train to become a teacher. In Singapore and Finland, the university training systems are consistent between institutions. And when teachers land their first jobs, there are systems to support them.

But it’s not just about selecting the “best and the brightest” young people to enter teacher-preparation programs, Sahlberg said of Finland. Of the 5 percent of applicants who were admitted to the elementary education teacher program at the University of Helsinki last year, one out of every four came from the bottom 50 percent of applicants, ranked by test scores, Sahlberg said.

Why? Because they were evaluated as having other talents or characteristics that would likely make them good teachers – such as a history of working in youth programs, or artistic talents – that weren’t captured by their academic track record. Those traits sometimes only come across in person, which is why Finnish universities conduct face-to-face interviews with the final pool of candidates for education school.

The philosophy is that choosing the right people to become teachers is more important than choosing the smartest people. Universities can help teacher-candidates become more knowledgeable in academic subjects, Sahlberg said. But education schools are far less equipped to imbue that special mix of personality and other traits on teachers-in-training that would inspire children to want to learn from them.

USA as innovator

Many of the ideas that underpin the systems driving teacher quality in high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland actually have their roots in the United States, according to the panelists. The leadership of both countries attempted to build education systems that could rival the U.S, particularly in the areas of innovation, motivation and the ability to better one’s circumstances through public education. But over the past 15 years, as the PISA exam has allowed for comparisons of student performance between developed countries, U.S. scores have remained average while those in Finland and Singapore have made large gains.

Education experts generally list a multitude of reasons for that. But Goodwin suggested one key transatlantic difference is how education leaders collect, analyze and make decisions based on data about teachers and teaching. Americans have become heavily focused on using student test-score data to evaluate teachers and implement high-stakes consequences, she said. In contrast, Singapore — which loves numbers and analytics, too, she said — uses similar data to help teachers learn how to become more effective at delivering content and managing learners.

“The notion is not on punitive measures, but on supporting and improving practice through the collective,” she said.